Big Hollywood Is Getting Into the VR Game at Sundance
Two years ago, virtual reality was the awkward new kid at the Sundance Film Festival: energetic, but not fully formed. All that will change in January, when more 30 VR experiences descend on Park City, Utah. and far more square footage.
“I remember in 2012 and 2013, there was no VR, then in 2014 the next [wave] showed up at the festival and it was, like, four pieces,” says Shari Frilot, who programs Sundance’s New Frontier segment. “People were going into those headsets and being like, ‘I’ve just seen the future!’ That experience let me know that 2015 was going to look the way that it did—and when it exploded, it completely let the beast out of the cage.”
She’s right. In 2014, there were less than a half-dozen VR experiences, tucked into a small corner of the festivals New Frontier program for emerging storytelling platforms. This past January, there were nine. Next year, that number will more than double to 30—and those Frilot selected from between 200 and 300 submissions.
That influx is being accompanied by something that the New Frontier program usually doesn’t see a lot of: Hollywood. Right next to the stories of life in South Central Los Angeles and the History of Cuban Dance there will be The Martian VR Experience, a project by Fox that allows viewers to put themselves in the boots of the movie’s titular astronaut Mark Watney. (Fox also had a VR experience at last year’s fest for Wild.) There’s also a piece created by comic/musician (and Late Late Show with James Corden musical director) Reggie Watts that stars Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel.
Game of thrones costar Nathalie Emmanuel filming a VR video for the future. pic.twitter.com/VamXwylKut
— reggie watts (@reggiewatts) April 19, 2015
Now that Samsung’s Gear VR is on the market and the consumer Oculus headset is forthcoming, the influence of Hollywood and other big players is only going to get more intense. “The lure and the possibility of this medium is very real,” Frilot says. “Filmmakers are feeling it. The studios are feeling it. Manufacturers who are creating these headsets are going to market. Even audiences are starting to feel it.”
In the non-VR space, New Frontier will also have The Holo-Cinema, a presentation of Industrial Light & Magic’s ILMxLab that the lab cryptically describes as allowing “participants to step into iconic story moments while spatially perceiving the performing characters and exploring worlds.” (Would those worlds be galaxies, by chance, be far, far away?)
New Frontiers for Sundance
It’s a long way away from the New Frontier program that launched a decade ago, back when the programming was a mix of experimental standard films and pieces that were more like art installations. Chris Milk, who has since become one of the wunderkinds of VR to launch out of Sundance, remembers those days well. Back in 2011, he brought an installation for his Wilderness Downtown project with Arcade Fire to the festival; the altitude in Park City didn’t agree with his hard drives and his “Wilderness Machine” wouldn’t spit out the postcards it was supposed to. “The whole thing basically became a big, pretty paperweight,” Milk says.
Milk is actually glad for VR now, and not just because it means he only has to bring a few pairs of VR goggles or Google Cardboards to Utah. “I’ve been searching for what comes after cinema as the next gold standard of storytelling,” he says. “New Frontier has been an incubator of what that next medium might be. You’re seeing VR playing such a major role because the technology for that next great platform has finally come to fruition.”
For Milk, who is bringing both his Waves of Grace VR experience to Sundance as well as a “large-scale interactive triptych” called The Treachery of Sanctuary, VR’s potential extends far beyond its current programming constraints. “What I’d like to see,” he says, “is for VR to become its own juried category in the festival.”
If anything in this year’s line-up would be worthy of a Sundance jury prize, it’s Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor. Created by filmmaker Rose Troche and CGI whiz Morris May, the VR experience puts viewers in the shoes of two young men being apprehended by police—as well as the officer himself. Unlike the videos of police shootings, which have become all too common and immediately lead to speculation about blame and what went wrong, Perspective 2 is meant to start a dialogue. Last year, Troche and May brought Perspective; Chapter I—The Party, a similarly presented piece about sexual assault.
Both projects deal with emotional issues, but the director says the second installment was a lot harder to make. “The thing about Perspective last year and this year is really that the intent of the piece is to open up a conversation about these things, lay down our swords for a second,” Troche says, adding “I want you to feel the regret of this young man who shot this other young man.”
But tackling powerful subjects in new ways is very much the point of New Frontier, and Troche, who started out as a traditional director with one black and white film at Sundance in 1994 (Go Fish, if you’re curious), says that to now be part of the program she used to just visit is “amazing.” “There’s something so electrifying that has come out of Shari’s brain. You just go in there to get your mind blown,” Troche says. “It’s the future.”
And here’s the rest of New Frontier’s VR line-up at Sundance, as furnished by the festival.
Artists: Daniel Schechter, Linc Gasking, Rainer Gombos
#100humans is the story of the first humans who walked through 8i’s doors to help invent a new medium. Using 3D video technology to record real people for VR, this story explores a new level of emotional connections and sense of presence that brings viewers the most lifelike intimate experience.
Cast: Ashley Martin Scott, Logan Paul, Young Guru, Denise Garcia, Brent Bushnell.
6×9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement
Artists: Francesca Panetta, Lindsay Poulton
Right now, more than 80,000 people are locked in tiny concrete boxes where every element of their environment is controlled. They are confined to spaces with no human contact, and the sensory deprivation they endure causes severe psychological damage. These people are invisible to us—and eventually to themselves.
The Abbot’s Book
Artists: Michael Conelly, Lyndon Barrois
Four generations of an Italian noble family are cursed by the corrupt power of an ancient book unearthed from the catacombs beneath their estate. Rich with traditional gothic-inspired mythology, the story follows a scion of this cursed family attempting to shield his heirs from the inevitable darkness.
Cast: JB Blanc.
Across the Line
Artists: Nonny de la Peña, Brad Lichtenstein, Jeff Fitzsimmons
This immersive VR experience puts the audience on the scene with anti-abortion extremists trying to intimidate patients seeking sexual and reproductive health care at Planned Parenthood. Using documentary footage and a montage of real audio, viewers gain intimate knowledge of the harassment outside and compassion inside health centers across the country.
Cast: Samantha Collier, Kristina Nailen, Raegan McDonald-Mosley MD, Charles Gilbert, Lee Sherman, Joe Spence.
Artists: Jake Rowell, Neville Spiteri, Ben Vance
Encounter an 80-foot blue whale while experiencing the awe, wonder, and majesty of underwater habitats, designed as beautiful moments in passing or a collection of memories.
Artists: Vincent McCurley, Loc Dao
A virtual reality experiment questions the ethics of artificial intelligence algorithms in self-driving cars when they are faced with difficult decisions during an unavoidable crash event. Given varied cultural and individual ethics, who should be designing these algorithms, and how should they be chosen?
￼Artist: Lynette Wallworth
Journey to a remote desert in western Australia that is home to indigenous leader Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe. Nyarri’s first contact with Western culture was in the 1950s via a dramatic collision between his traditional worldview and the cutting edge of modern technology.
Cast: Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, Curtis Taylor.
Artists: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally; Key Collaborators: Jay Brown, Andrew Delpit, Chris McClanahan
Encounter a majestic jaguar deep in the jungle, lie with a nesting sea turtle on a windy beach, and fly with monarch butterflies, all before they disappear. This powerful virtual reality experience is a glimpse into the habitats of Earth’s endangered species.
Artist: Randal Kleiser
In this futuristic, sci-fi virtual reality adventure, viewers are put in the seat of a woman who wakes up after being frozen for nearly 30 years to reunite with her family. The reunion is bittersweet, as the passage of time has caused her loved ones to become strangers.
Carl Weathers, Bruce Davison, Tanna Frederick, Christopher Atkins, Ethan Rains, Clinton Valencia.
Artists: Toby Coffey, Lysander Ashton, Ollie Lindsey; Key Collaborator: Mahdi Yahya
Fall down the rabbit hole and experience the magical and vibrant digital world of the Royal National Theater’s wonder.land stage show. Watch and listen with VR technology as the Cheshire cat hovers above like a magnificent holographic airship while serenading you to “Fabulous,” a song from the show.
Cast: Hal Fowler.
Hard World for Small Things
Artist: Janicza Bravo
A day in the life of a tight-knit community in South Central Los Angeles.
Cast: Keith Stanfield, Brandon Scott, Hannah Heller, Idara Victor, Jodie Smith.
A History of Cuban Dance
Artist: Lucy Walker
Organic, spontaneous, sexy dances progress chronologically through AfroCuban Santería rumba, mambo, chachachá, salsa, breakdancing, and reggaeton, with optional audio tracks reflecting the broader story of Cuban history as revealed in the moves. This liveaction virtual reality documentary was filmed on location in Cuba and features Ballet de la Televisión Cubana.
Cast: Ballet de la Televisión Cubana.
Artist: Ben Vance; Key Collaborators: Sam Bird, Joel Corelitz
Uniquely designed for room-scale VR, this interactive art experience gives the viewer an intimate connection to the possibilities and wonders of space, where mysterious phenomena, hidden beauty, and the infinite await.
Artists: Alex Schwartz, Devin Reimer
This experience of manning an office cubicle is a unique blend of storytelling, comedy, and intuitive game mechanics that focuses on micro-interactions. Pick up a tomato, smash a glass, and explore a sandbox world with childlike wonder, while ignoring established gaming systems.
Artist: Nonny de la Peña
In this harrowing virtual reality story of a real-life domestic violence homicide, two sisters engage in a doomed struggle to save the third from being shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend. Utilizing audio and imagery captured at the real event, this piece transforms the audience from viewers to active witnesses.
Cast: Lee Sherman, Toyin Moses, Tripp Pickell, Diana Toshiko.
The Martian VR Experience
Artists: Robert Stromberg, Ridley Scott
Step into the shoes of astronaut Mark Watney as he performs tasks that will facilitate his chances for survival and rescue. Viewers can fly onto the surface of Mars, steer at zero gravity through space, and drive a rover, deepening the experience of key scenes from Ridley Scott’s hit film, The Martian.
Artists: Felix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphael
Witness the Maasai tribe’s living heritage in the village of Enkutoto, Kenya, through repeated walkabout visuals in the Great Rift Valley. Watch jumping-dance competitions, the men’s unmatched hunting abilities, and the women’s skills in building mud houses, long-distance water collection, and bead artwork.
Nomads: Sea Gypsies
Artists: Felix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphael
In this episode of Nomads, viewers share the Bajau tribe’s nomadic existence on crammed houseboats that sway to the motion of river waters. Watch as the families
travel with fellow boat-dwelling relatives, always sharing a communal spirit.
Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness
Artists: Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe, Peter Middleton, James Spinney
After losing his sight in 1983, John Hull began to record an audio diary documenting his discovery of “a world beyond sight.” Hull’s original recordings form the basis of this interactive documentary, which uses real-time 3-D, virtual reality, and binaural sound to explore the world of the blind.
Cast: John Hull.
Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor
Artists: Rose Troche, Morris May
When two men are stopped by a police officer, a simple misdemeanor spirals out of control, turning the situation rapidly antagonistic. With each party suspecting the other, no one is able to stop the chain of events that follows.
Cast: Shemar Jonas, Javon Jones, Joey Auzenne, Johnny Tchaikovsky.
The Rose and I
Artists: Eugene Chung, Jimmy Maidens, Alex Woo
An immersive, animated VR film crafted by the artists, hackers and storytellers of Penrose Studios, The Rose and I is about loneliness, friendship, love, and loss. Come meet a lonely Rose living in the unlikeliest of places, and be transported into a brand new universe.
Cast: Rachael Bigelow
￼￼Artists: Emilie Joly, Sylvain Joly, Michaël Martin; Key Collaborators: Maria Beltran Reyes, John Howe, Richard Johnson
A teenage girl becomes guardian of the last city on Earth to change its fate by fusing her instinctive knowledge of nature with an AI’s benevolence, analysis, and foresight. This interactive animated series made for virtual reality relies on your focus for the story to evolve.
Cast: Peter Coyote, Morgan Burch.
Artists: Robyn Gray, Andrew Goldstein, Michael Murdock
Be careful where you look because someone or something doesn’t want you here. Otherworld presents two chapters in their popular horror series. Experience two sets of thrills and chills as you physically walk through a haunted house and experience a virtual reality ghost story that will scare your pants off.
Cast: Julia Chalker, Greg Vogt.
Artists: Philipp Maas, Dominik Stockhausen
When a drone receives a faint distress call emerging from an unknown asteroid, it journeys to locate the source of the signal and ventures into a deep, ancient labyrinth that holds a secret even darker than space itself.
Artist: Andrew Thomas Huang; Key Collaborator: Björk Guðmundsdóttir
A virtual reality collaboration between Vrse.works creator Andrew Thomas Huang and Björk explores the possibilities that VR holds for performance platforms outside of the traditional music video world.
Artist: Arjan van Meerten
An abstract meditation on the evolutionary process and its relentless march towards complexity, this virtual reality music video was produced over the course of a year, with Arjan van Meertan creating all of the music, animation, and code himself.
The Unknown Photographer
Artists: Loic Suty, Osman Zeki, Claudine Matte
This immersive documentary unveils a journey into the heart of the First World War through hundreds of photographs that were found in the abandoned workshop of a country house in Quebec, Canada.
Cast: Julian Casey, François Papineau.
Artists: Michel Reilhac, Carl Guyenette
Three women and four men, all naked, appear out of nowhere in the white, sunny space of a bright room outside of time. They meet, touch, share their energy, and are transformed spiritually; they let themselves become one with the world.
Cast: Amador Jojo, Ayoti, Christophe De La Pointe, De La Fouquette, Flozif, Yumie Volupté.
Artists: Benjamin Dickinson, Reggie Watts, Luis Blackaller
Reggie Watts weaves a virtual reality story that is a dream-within-a-dream meta-ride down the rabbit hole, where the only constants seem to be his philosophical musings, comedic insights, and musical genius.
Cast: Reggie Watts, Nathalie Emmanuel.
Waves of Grace
Artists: Gabo Arora, Chris Milk
In this experience viewers are transported to the most populous slum in the capital city of Liberia, where Decontee Davis, an Ebola survivor, uses her immunity to help others affected by the disease.
Cast: Decontee Davis.
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